Utah women’s basketball: Utes are one win away from Sweet 16

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Utah Utes forwards Alissa Pili (35), Jenna Johnson (22) and Teya Sidberry (32) cheer during the game against Gardner-Webb during the NCAA First Round at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 17, 2023.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Something has got to give.

That is one of the most overused cliches in sports, but in the case of Sunday’s NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament Round of 32 matchup between No. 10 seed Princeton and No. 2 Utah, it certainly applies.

Tipoff is at 5 p.m. at the Huntsman Center and the battle to see which team advances to the Sweet 16 next week in Greenville, South Carolina, will be televised by ESPN2.

“Yeah, we are the last team in Utah standing, so I think the whole state of Utah kinda rallies behind people. I think if even the Team Down South (BYU) was the only team left in it, we would be behind them, too.” — Utah guard Kennady McQueen.

Pac-12 regular-season co-champion Utah (26-4) is the fourth-highest-scoring team in the country, averaging 83.5 points points per game.

Ivy League champion Princeton (24-5) is ranked No. 5 in the country in scoring defense, holding opponents to 52.5 points per game.

Of course, there are a bunch of other advanced metrics that explain more fully why the Utes score so much and the Tigers allow so little, but the bottom line is that Sunday’s winner will be the one that imposes its will the most on the other.

That should be the Utes, who were No. 8 in the last Associated Press Top 25 poll after getting as high as No. 3 after they beat now-No. 5 Stanford in the regular-season finale, but as Friday’s action in the men’s tournament showed when No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson knocked off No. 1 seed Purdue, anything can happen.

“Utah is a really great team. They have had an unbelievable season in the Pac-12,” Princeton coach Carla Berube said. “They have got great, skilled players and shooters, and yes, they put up a lot of points. Our defense needs to be really, really solid. … Looking forward to the challenge.”

Players and coaches from both teams met with the media Saturday after Utah pounded Gardner-Webb 103-77 Friday at the Huntsman Center, while Princeton got a last-second 3-pointer to upset North Carolina State 64-63 in the second game.

Utah shot 59% from the field and 44% from 3-point range in another offensive display of which its fast-growing fan base has become aware. It was the fifth time Utah has scored 100 points or more this season.

“Their defensive is impressive. They are just so disciplined with it. Every time someone catches it, they’ve got hands up. They rotate so well,” Utah coach Lynne Roberts said. “… But yeah, we can score. They gotta stop us. It is going to be the battle of the wills, I am sure, in that regard.”

Kneepkens, who had 17 points and nine rebounds vs. Gardner-Webb, said there is respect for Princeton’s defense, but not fear.

“We know they are a great defensive team, but I think if we can play the way we know how to play and move the ball and make the extra pass and celebrate each other and just get our rhythm, I think we are really hard to stop no matter who is on the defensive end,” Kneepkens said. “… We will be ready to attack them, and also get stops on the defensive end so we play a complete 40 minutes.”

Along with that storyline, the main question that emerged Saturday is how Princeton is going to deal with Utah’s National Player of the Year candidate, USC transfer Alissa Pili. The native of Anchorage, Alaska, had her way against the overwhelmed Bulldogs Friday en route to a career-high 33 points.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said. “She is a nightmare to defend, because she can shoot the 3, and because she is big and strong, and really athletic and mobile. 

“So it doesn’t matter who we are playing, I think you have to game plan for her.

Then with our 3-point shooting, you kind of have to pick your poison,” Roberts said.

The Utes didn’t need their usual 3-point bombing to beat the Bulldogs, making just seven triples. Instead, they assisted on 32 of their 37 baskets and scored 60 points in the paint.

“That’s remarkable, and that’s a sign of an unselfish team,” Roberts said.

Utah players Gianna Kneepkens and Kennady McQueen giggled from the podium when they were asked if they hope Princeton puts just one player on Pili Sunday, as Gardner-Webb did Friday.

“I mean, I would expect a different approach. Every team that we play that tries to go one-on-one, Alissa takes full advantage of it,” McQueen said. “She is an All-American for a reason, one of the best players in the country. So yeah, I mean, defenses should probably key in on that, but if not, we will take it. Whatever it takes.”

On the line for the Utes will not only be a chance to go a perfect 16-0 at home this season, but a chance to make it to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006 and just the third time in program history.

Princeton, which has won 16 straight games, hasn’t lost since a 58-55 overtime setback to Columbia on Jan. 6. Berube acknowledged that the Tigers will face a Huntsman Center crowd — announced attendance Friday was 7,130 — squarely behind the home team.

“What Utah has is pretty awesome here,” she said, after being asked if she’s in favor of the women’s tournament format that allows higher seeds to host first- and second-round games, rather than have them at neutral sites like the men’s tournament.

“… I am not in favor of one or the other. I love just being able to get on the court, and if we can silence an away crowd, that’s really fun, too. So yeah, whatever works for everyone.”

Here’s another question that was broached to Utah’s players Saturday: Do they feel the support of the entire state behind them, including what one local television reporter referred to as ‘those Team Down South fans?”

That would be rival BYU, in more professional, respectful terms.

“Yeah, we are the last team in Utah standing, so I think the whole state of Utah kinda rallies behind people. I think if even the Team Down South was the only team left in it, we would be behind them, too,” McQueen said. “It is just cool to have Utah be represented on a national level, so we are going to, like we would support them, they support us, I am sure.”

Utah women’s basketball on the air

NCAA Tournament Round of 32 Game

No. 2 Utah (26-4) vs. No. 10 Princeton (24-5)

Sunday, 5 p.m. MDT

At Jon M. Huntsman Center, Salt Lake City


Radio: ESPN 700

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